This time last year I was in Freetown with Ebola all around.
I was checking the news, texts, Whatsapp, Internet, radio every minute just to watch as the number of people with Ebola rose.
I was driving up and down between Freetown and Lunsar as we slowly built the Ebola treatment centre and on the way we’d see corpses lying at the side of the road.
There was such a level of fear and panic in Sierra Leone at the time that if someone died of anything no one knew what to do about it. No one knew what to do if people got sick and even though there were banners all over the towns to call 117, the emergency number, no one would. There was fear the whole family would taken and never seen again if you called, and there was a fear of how people were being treated (“badly” is the answer back then). So for some it seemed like the only option was to dump a loved family member on the side of the road. But of course then no one else would touch the corpse as they were all scared.
This time last year I watched a country spreading so many rumours and arguments to explain what was happening to them and why. I heard people say it was because there were wicked people bringing in this sickness, they said it was brought in by westerners and white people to kill them, they said it was the government killing them, that the disease did not exist. As we rushed to build the treatment centres from scratch I spent time with Community leaders and chiefs and saw first hand the fear in their eyes as nothing they were doing was stopping the spread and hundreds of people in their communities were dying. Some families lost as many as thirty members from a single house. For some people the days of the week could be ticked off by remembering who died that day. We worked tirelessly to try and help but Ebola was cruel. Between October 2014 and July 2015 I looked into the eyes of patients, trying to support them, often knowing already that they would not survive. We lost so many people and children, we lost the fight against Ebola and I only hope that if and when it happens again we will be better and be prepared from the harsh lessons we learned.
When my fight with Ebola finished in July 2015 I came home and spent the most amazing 3 months with my fantastic husband who, for some reason, I insist on leaving all the time – perhaps because he is so fantastic he gives me the courage to leave! During that time I felt like I finally had the time to digest what had happened. I felt guilty for leaving before the end and before we really started recovery but by that time I was tired and I was not strong enough or creative enough to give more. I handed over to people with fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm.
Almost a year to the day after I returned to Sierra Leone to start that fight I have now flown to Turkey to join the efforts supporting Syrian refugees. This time I am the incoming pair of fresh eyes and enthusiasm.
The Syrian conflict is now well into its fourth year. Over 2 million Syrian refugees are currently in Turkey and similar numbers are in Lebanon and Jordan – numbers which make the UK worrying about accepting only 20,000 displaced people somewhat embarrassing. I am slowly starting to learn how Turkey are treating the people here and I am slowly starting to learn about Turkey. I have learnt early on that even though I am based in Turkey and the majority of my work will be in Turkey (i.e. working with Syrian refugees in Turkey) it feels like a Syrian-led response. The majority of the team are from Syria and Arabic is the most commonly spoken language in the office (except for English – thank goodness). The Syrians we are working with are intelligent, well educated and keen to help. Everyone wants to be back in Syria but with the fighting and confused political situation no one is sure how or when that will be. We have daily security briefings and try our best to follow the news, but who knows what will happen.
A year after Ebola I am now in a different fight, a fight that involves so many different actors and countries and religious and political beliefs, a fight that is so complicated it is impossible to say you really understand or see a solution. But it is similar to Ebola in that people are suffering, a country has collapsed (just as Sierra Leone did) and inside northern and eastern Syria there is no functioning healthcare system – there is nowhere to get regular life saving medications, there is no state to pick you up. We have amazing teams of people delivering non food items to 40,000 families ever few months, we have psychosocial workers who support the mental health and well-being of those individuals and families who have lost everything. We train people in how to notice and identify those people that are not coping and we find ways to help them. We are doing this with refugees in Turkey and internally displaced people in Syria.
I have left Ian again to come out and do this because I believe that it is worth it, these are extreme times and extreme cases and because I would like to think that if this were to happen in our country there would be people who would come and help us.